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‘The Rehearsal’ by Eleanor Catton *****

The Rehearsal is the debut novel by Eleanor Catton, the author of The Luminaries, which I very much enjoyed, and which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013.  Despite the praise which her second novel has had, relatively few readers in comparison seem to have come across The Rehearsal.  I was so looking forward to reading Catton’s debut, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and was written as her MFA thesis when she was just twenty two years old.  The Sunday Times recognises that Catton is ‘a starburst of talent and the arrival of an author wholly different from anyone else writing today’.  The Guardian calls the novel ‘astonishing… [it] has the glitter and mystery of a true literary original… the prose is so arresting, the storytelling so seductive, that wherever the book falls open it’s near impossible to put down.’

7513511The Rehearsal follows the experiences of several adolescents when a sex scandal rocks their school, and later, when a group of drama school students decide to dramatise it, the wider community.  ‘The sudden publicity [of the scandal],’ says the novel’s blurb, ‘seems to turn every act into a performance and every space into a stage…  the real world and the world of the theatre are forced to meet, and soon the boundaries between private and public begin to dissolve…’.

Isolde, the younger sister of the girl who enters into a relationship with her schoolteacher, tells her saxophone teacher: ‘Dad says it would probably be years and years before Mr Saladin gets properly convicted and goes to jail…  All the papers will say child abuse, but there won’t be a child any more, she’ll be an adult by then, just like him.  It’ll be like someone destroyed the scene of the crime on purpose, and built something clean and shiny in its place.’  Isolde is focused upon throughout, as is a drama student named Stanley, and a girl named Julia, who has lessons with the same saxophone teacher as Isolde.

Isolde’s sister, Victoria, flits in and out of the narrative and its dialogue; she is the central focus of the novel, due to her actions and their repercussions, and the way in which these draw certain characters together, but she is never a protagonist in terms of the space devoted to her in the novel.  Isolde wonders about her sister’s choices, musing about them, but knowing she will never be able to directly confront Victoria.  Catton writes: ‘She could not ask, Why didn’t you tell me? when Victoria snared her first lover, began her first affair, broke her first promise, or shed, for the first time, tiny blossom-drops of virgin blood, for all those slender landmarks are part of a terrain in which the younger sister does not yet belong.’  There is a rawness to Catton’s characters throughout, and the ways in which they interact.  They are, without exception, complex, and feel ultimately realistic, even when we only know them by their job titles, or when they exist only on the periphery.

The Rehearsal has been written in an extremely clever way; it becomes difficult, almost from the very beginning, to know if the characters are those affected directly by the scandal, or whether they are mirrors, actors rendering their actions into play-form.  They go by the same names, and there is no marked distinction between the two.  This sounds confusing, but actually, it serves to make the novel all the more absorbing.  The Rehearsal bounces back and forth in time, and Catton so cleverly blends what is real, what is acted, and what is imagined together.

There is a real freshness and sharpness to the dialogue here; nothing said is ever cliched, or sentimental.  Conversational exchanges have a complexity to them, and they often startle.  At the drama institute, for instance, a former pupil tells the new intake: ‘Everything you’ve ever slammed shut gets reopened here…  If none of you had auditioned and been accepted you would all have become cemented, cast in plaster and moulded for the rest of your adult life.  That’s what’s happening to everybody else, out there.  In here you never congeal.  You never set or crust over.  Every possibility is kept open – it must be kept open.  You learn to hold all those possibilities in your fist and never let any of them go.’

Taut and impressive, The Rehearsal is certainly a novel to admire.  I enjoyed it even more than The Luminaries, which is a literary tour de force I doubt I will ever forget.  The Rehearsal is perceptive, searching, and understanding; it is incredibly compelling, and there is so much here for one to invest in.  Catton’s prose is beautiful and has such depth to it.  The Rehearsal does not read like a debut novel; rather, it feels incredibly polished and accomplished.  Catton’s voice is highly distinctive; never does it falter.  This novel is a masterful one, which I found entirely absorbing.

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6

Books Set in New Zealand

Reading Rose Tremain’s wonderful The Colour has made me realise quite how few books I have read which are set in New Zealand.  This is clearly an oversight on my part; New Zealand has always been very high on my travel list, and I am fascinated by the culture there.  Katherine Mansfield, born in Wellington, is one of my favourite all-time authors, and I also very much enjoy the work of Janet Frame, Lloyd Jones, and Eleanor Catton.  I clearly need more works set in New Zealand on my to-read pile, and thus have made a list of tomes which I am very much looking forward to picking up in the next year or so.

5271891. Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge (I’m hoping to read this for the 1944 Club in October)
A haunting love story set in the Channel Islands and New Zealand in the 19th century.  William, whose hypnotic, masculine presence made two women adore him… of Marianne, moody, passionate, brilliant, by whom William was both fascinated and repelled… of Marguerite, Marianne’s beautiful sister whom William wanted with all his heart.  They had both loved him for years. Now they were waiting for him to return from his journeys and claim his bride.

 

2. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

3. The Bone People by Keri Hulme 460635
In a tower on the New Zealand sea lives Kerewin Holmes, part Maori, part European, an artist estranged from her art, a woman in exile from her family. One night her solitude is disrupted by a visitor—a speechless, mercurial boy named Simon, who tries to steal from her and then repays her with his most precious possession. As Kerewin succumbs to Simon’s feral charm, she also falls under the spell of his Maori foster father Joe, who rescued the boy from a shipwreck and now treats him with an unsettling mixture of tenderness and brutality. Out of this unorthodox trinity Keri Hulme has created what is at once a mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet, clash, and sometimes merge. Winner of both a Booker Prize and Pegasus Prize for Literature, The Bone People is a work of unfettered wordplay and mesmerizing emotional complexity.

 

4. An Angel at My Table: An Autobiography by Janet Frame
This autobiography traces Janet Frame’s childhood in a poor but intellectually intense family, life as a student, years of incarceration in mental hospitals and eventual entry into the saving world of writers.

 

237252755. The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns
Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home; a failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment; a sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant — The Settling Earth is a collection of ten, interlinked stories, focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers’ attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land.  Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succour offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities — these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land.

 

6. The Piano by Jane Campion
In the award-winning film The Piano, writer/director Jane Campion created a story so original and powerful it fascinated millions of moviegoers. This novel stands independent of the film, exploring the mysteries of Ada’s muteness, the secret of her daughter’s conception, the reason for her strange marriage and the past lives of Baines and Stewart.

 

7. A Respectable Girl by Fleur Beale 3768628
It is 1859 in the raw township of New Plymouth where Hannah Carstairs walks between two worlds. She finds that both her worlds are changing. First there are the disturbing hints about her dead mother’s past. Then, the tensions between the Maori tribes and the settlers boil over into war.

 

8. A Land of Two Halves by Joe Bennett
After 10 years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett asked himself what on earth he was doing there. Other than his dogs, what was it about these two small islands on the edge of the world that had kept him—an otherwise restless traveller—for really much longer than they seemed to deserve? Bennett thought he’d better pack his bag and find out. Hitching around both the intriguingly named North and South Islands, with an eye for oddity and a taste for conversation, Bennett began to remind himself of the reasons New Zealand is quietly seducing the rest of the world.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourite works set in, or about, New Zealand?

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